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School's (Far) Out

In the early 1970s, American culture was rattling like a window in an earthquake. A controversial war had divided the country and campuses erupted in protest. Fights raged over racial fairness and women’s rights. Sexual liberation stunned prudes. Political corruption was destroying a presidency. And there were drugs, lots of drugs. I was a junior high counselor at the time, and the street in front of the public school where I worked in Avondale showed the scars of the violent rioting that had erupted there in 1967 and ’68. Sometimes all you had to do was look out that rattling window to realize that upheaval was everywhere.

And yet, if there was ever a time for a newly married 27-year-old educator with no administrative experience to abandon job security and launch an unfunded, unsanctioned high school using little more than a magazine article as a guide, this surely was it.

Looking back, one question leaps out: How did I think I could start an educational revolution in this city with only four years on the job and a fresh master’s degree from Xavier University? Yes, I’d seen disengaged, even failing, students as a teacher at Glen Este Junior High School in Clermont County and Cutter Junior High in Over-the-Rhine, and as a counselor at Samuel Ach Junior High in Avondale. I had seen bureaucracies put traditional instruction ahead of kids’ needs. I had seen students stuffed into egg-crate classrooms for lectures by adults who had no actual life experience with the topics they were teaching. And I had devoured books by progressive educators advocating the radical transformation of schools. Nevertheless, though I had seen the problems and read about possible solutions, I still wasn’t sure what I could do about any of it.

That all changed one summer afternoon in 1970 with a phone call from Tom Corbett, a former Marianist brother and curriculum official with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. I had read in the local media that Tom, along with his future wife, Carol Lee, a teacher I knew, had been hired to start an innovative Montessori elementary school for kids. It would be called The New School, and it would be located in the old Mitchell mansion in North Avondale. It was part of the budding “free school” movement—a countercultural approach to education that wasn’t tied to textbooks, rigid classroom instruction, or top-down decision-making.

When Tom called, I remember joking, “How could you open a radical school in Cincinnati without me?” He laughed and said we might be able to fix that—immediately.

Tom explained that some of their inquiries were from teenagers and parents looking for an alternative to conventional high schools. Would I like to meet with those families to explore starting a school for them? Sometimes innovations are birthed by passion and timing as much as skill. I said yes on the spot, too naive to really understand what I was getting into. And that was the start of New Morning School.

Looking at it from a distance of four decades, you could dismiss it as a brief experiment in progressive education. But it helped jump-start a series of innovations within the Cincinnati public school system that are still around today. And I am convinced it had a lifelong impact on some of the children who experienced it.

I’m long retired from secondary education, but as an adjunct professor at Xavier University, I make a habit of analyzing today’s reform strategies—the Common Core State Standards, school choice, and merit pay, to name a few. I’m as sure as ever that changing times will always force schools to evolve. But 40 years ago, this is what evolution looked like.   

The big idea behind New Morning School was that it would be shaped by the kids and families it would serve. That meant identifying students and parents who’d be interested in this sort of academic revolution, then getting them to sit down together.

To find them, I started with the people who had contacted Tom, then went in search of other like-minded souls. Facebook would have made it easy, I suppose, but in those primitive times I turned to radio as my social networking tool. WEBN offered the Free Electric Classifieds, where you could call in and sell your old beater car or used musical instrument. I pushed their rules and used my minute to invite high school students to come create a place where they could learn on their own terms.

Tom offered us the New School’s facilities and we began to meet weekly—eventually drawing a core group of 90 students and their parents who wanted to participate in earnest. At those early planning meetings, the most persistent agenda item was anger. Everyone knew what they hated about school: boring classroom lectures, authoritarian principals, rules aimed at conformity, and a general disrespect for students’ input. Complaining got us started, but only an idea would take us somewhere.

I had read an article in Time about a project in the Philadelphia public schools: the Parkway Program. The program organized learning in traditional subject areas (chemistry, English, math, etc.) but the lessons were taught with the help of artists, writers, architects, politicians, scientists, carpenters, mathematicians, and others who lived those subjects. With these volunteers as the students’ information sources, and working with licensed staff, this school-without-walls used hands-on projects to motivate reticent teenagers.

The ideas behind the Parkway Program caught fire with our group immediately, and we began to talk about how we could replicate it. First, we conceived a new learning environment. Instead of classrooms in a formal school building, we’d use a small headquarters for meetings; the learning would go on throughout the city. When word got out that we were cooking up something so seemingly radical, other educators began sitting in on our planning meetings—a local artist, an assistant professor of education at the University of Cincinnati, and three Cincinnati Public Schools teachers. All of whom eventually joined the school’s first professional staff.

With a school-without-walls pedagogy now as our North Star, we wrote a prospectus for what we had come to call New Morning School (Bob Dylan’s album New Morning had just come out) and I took it to the administration of Cincinnati Public Schools.

I can’t recall who I made the initial pitch to, but my best recollection is that I actually got a short meeting at the central office with then-Superintendent Paul Miller, a traditionalist by my standards. I argued that our idea for a small, democratically governed learning-without-walls project should be adopted by the school district (with, of course, us leading it). Just as Philadelphia had created their tax-funded Parkway Program to transform education for some of their restless kids, New Morning School could give city families an exciting alternative. We even had suburban families participating, and their tuition would help fund the endeavor. It was clear that Miller had, indeed, read the written proposal, because he quickly said it was “way out.” The district wasn’t interested.

Discouraged, that evening at dinner I asked my wife, Bonnie, a young dance teacher building her own business, how she felt about me leaving a secure job as a school counselor to start a private school. My pay would be low—even iffy sometimes. And there were no guarantees we could even get the thing off the ground. “If you believe in it, you should do it,” she said. Zeitgeist, here we come.

We polled our kids and their parents and made the decision to continue to plan New Morning—but as a private school. Several of us traveled to Columbus to meet with the Ohio Department of Education to seek formal state approval, which would allow credits from New Morning to transfer to other high schools, and our graduates’ diplomas to be recognized by colleges and employers. After reviewing our printed materials—and, I suspect, looking at our bell bottoms and shoulder-length hair—officials said they would note our existence but wouldn’t give New Morning the hoped-for blessing.

We plowed ahead. New Morning School incorporated and opened in the fall of 1971. Our headquarters were in the Friar’s Club on West McMillan Street and we charged $750 in tuition, applied on a sliding scale for families who couldn’t pay the full amount. It was a reality that necessitated constant fund-raising stacked on top of a nearly impossible list of start-up tasks. The staff was to be paid about $10,000 a year, but there were to be many months when short checks followed slow money flow.

School bureaucrats did cut us a break, and it was an important one: Because New Morning didn’t have state approval, technically our students would be truants. We were taking our chances that district personnel responsible for enforcing attendance laws would simply ignore their absence. And they did.

Our students were a hodgepodge of hippies, prodigies, and misfits. Perhaps not surprisingly, the largest contingent came from Walnut Hills High School, but there were others from Anderson Township, Batavia, Loveland, Deer Park, Wyoming, Indian Hill, Sayler Park, and even Northern Kentucky—about 120 students in all. Although the student body was noticeably white, there were a number of African-American families who saw progressive education as a promising alternative and sent their kids our way.

To run the school, we adopted a one-person-one-vote town meeting structure involving all of the students plus seven staff members and 13 elected parent advisors. We hired an office manager, partnered with the University of Cincinnati’s Community Psychology Institute for help in working by consensus, divided the students and staff into learning teams, wrote a curriculum plan that met Carnegie Unit standards (the amount of time students must spend on a particular subject), and organized an opening retreat where we passed out a printed survival guide to help everyone navigate this new methodology.

As word got out about New Morning, calls came in from people volunteering to teach. There were college professors who let students attend their classes for high school credit or met with them for tutorials. Jazz aficionado Oscar Treadwell pitched in; so did photographer Gordon Baer. Leesa Hubbell, now a designer and college professor in New York City, apprenticed at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park with acclaimed costumer Caley Summers. Our staff coordinated the student-expert connections and evaluated the result.

We took students to backpack a section of the Appalachian Trail, logging credit hours in science, physical education, and even English (we read the mountain tales of Jesse Stewart around the campfire). Students went to court trials and city council meetings to study government and constructed a geodesic dome to learn about geometry and physics. Very quickly our “way out” school was deluged with requests from community groups that wanted to learn more—so we organized a public speaking class to prep our kids to make formal presentations.

Many of the kids filled thick files with “learning evidence,” documentation that would translate into credits recognized by the state and by college admissions offices. Others went completely rogue, pursuing whatever subjects they wanted with varying degrees of rigor, following their bliss with no regard for credits or requirements. Some got into college without a diploma; a few eventually took the GED.

In the spring of 1972, New Morning School graduated its first 11 students who had completed the 17 credits needed at the time to matriculate in Ohio. The ceremony was at Eden Park on a glorious Saturday morning. Some students designed colorful flags for the celebration, and the grads made their own diplomas. It was a casual, musical, Woodstock-ish affair. But we felt our students were better equipped to face that quaking culture than the kids marching to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

New Morning attracted students and families who were frustrated by conventional classrooms. It attracted others who were just frustrated, period.

I recall meeting with a boy’s mom and dad late one afternoon. After small talk, I looked sternly at them and reported, “He doesn’t do anything.”

The dad replied, “Jene, we love this school.”

I squirmed. Was I too young to convey the seriousness of the problem? Their son just sat in our headquarters’ lounge, with occasional breaks to play Ping-Pong in the Friar’s Club rec room. He rarely attended group learning projects or came to the staff for help in initiating any of his own. “He doesn’t do anything,” I reiterated. “Not anything.”

The mom then locked eyes with me and said, “All last year we couldn’t get him out of bed. Now he comes here every day. Jene, we love this school.”

For teenagers profoundly alienated by school, maybe it was OK if New Morning served as a temporary decompression chamber. But as time passed, some of us worried that totally disconnecting kids from formal learning was a problem. The cornerstone of the school was freedom. But some of the consequences of that freedom were making me very uncomfortable. I saw action, engagement, and achievement as the school’s essential mission. Hanging out for hours in the lounge or cruising the city getting high under the cover of “independent study” was definitely not why I started a school without walls.

The conversation I had that day with the parents of the happy, malingering teen has stayed with me for the last 40 years. Some venerated educators assert that for young people to become lifelong, self-directed learners, they have to embrace the process on their own clock. Had time worked its magic for that kid? For any of our students? We, the staff, were trying to create independent, engaged citizens who would face life with the ability to think, choose, and change. Somewhere out there lay the product of our experiment in radical reform—New Morning alums, now teetering on the cusp of Senior Citizenship. Only they could tell me if it worked.

With the help of New Morning graduate Lisa Jameson, an artist and professor at Northern Kentucky University, I got together with a group of about 20 New Morning alums one evening last summer—some in person, others by webcam. (I talked with others separately for this article via Facebook, phone, and e-mail.) Approaching each of these conversations, I felt like a winemaker about to uncork a magnum of old sangiovese from a cool cellar after decades of waiting, unsure of what I was going to find. I wasn’t disappointed.   

I discovered that New Morning students—some of whom graduated, others who simply attended for a time—followed a wide array of paths out into the world, pursuing everything from social work to selling antiques. Mark Alton Brown and Dee LaDuke met at the school, the former from urban Cincinnati, the latter from Northern Kentucky; after college they teamed up to write and produce television shows, including the long-running CBS sitcom Designing Women and UPN’s Girlfriends. Now they have a movie script set in Cincinnati on the verge of being produced. Ian O’Connor works in the film industry, too; he’s a special effects supervisor and pyrotechnical artist in Los Angeles. In the 1980s, Stephen Koff wrote for this magazine; now he’s Washington bureau chief for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Brad Bonham became a veterinarian and Bob Oppenheimer a physician. Dyan Banta, who lives in South Carolina, recently retired from nursing to become a long-haul trucker. Reed Ghazala is recognized as the father of circuit-bending musical instruments, building them for musicians around the world from his home in Cincinnati. Michael Scheurer is a local artist, and Laura Miller Gleason operates a gallery on Hyde Park Square.

When we talked, many said that the school taught them how to learn. “New Morning was the perfect laboratory for me,” said Rick Vogt, who has an historic preservation business in Richmond, Virginia. “It placed that responsibility in my hands by encouraging me to explore and learn without being judged for what I was interested in or how I was pursuing my education.”

Leesa Hubbell—the designer who interned at the Playhouse—felt the school imbued her with self-reliance. “I credit New Morning with helping me establish the habit of trusting my intuition and taking risks—like when I learned Indonesian and ended up designing a line of clothing in Bali using batik fabric I designed.”

Several put it in more personal terms. Bruce Wehling, now an antiques dealer in Deer River, Minnesota, remembers being asked to speak to a community group about the school. “This made us feel unique and important,” he said. Lynne Donnelly, a holistic health practitioner in Coupeville, Washington, told me unequivocally, “Going to New Morning saved my sanity, if not my life!”

Richard Doliber, retired and living in Yuba City, California, was practical. “Being free motivated me. I directed my efforts into outcomes that I valued. The end result was that I missed a lot of daydreaming through structured classes.” Sallie Garfield Troutman, retired executive director of utilities and facilities management for the University of Cincinnati, said she used the school’s freedom to create her own possibilities, though it wasn’t the easier route. “There was accountability and freedom,” she said.

In some of those conversations I raised another concern I’ve carried though the years: Did New Morning’s freedom invite more drug use? The early ’70s were a looser time—years before crack, The Partnership for a Drug Free America, and Nancy Reagan took their toll. My primary desire had been to create a climate that would give kids more learning choices; I would shudder if my professional legacy included inadvertently nudging them into drug experimentation.

The responses I got put my mind at ease. Both LaDuke and Vogt said they stopped doing drugs when they got to New Morning because they finally got focused on learning. Some said they got high at all the schools they attended, and New Morning was no different. “I smoked a lot of pot at the time,” recalls one former student. He says he mostly used New Morning to explore music, the field he now works in. “[I] didn’t want to have anything to do with the system.” 

My conversations weren’t empirical research. And they didn’t take into account all the other factors that played a role in their lives—family, friends, the other high schools and colleges they attended. But for everyone I reconnected with, however briefly, I could sense that New Morning was part of the big picture.

The school’s short life was bookended by another fortuitous phone call. A full year in, we still had no indication that the State of Ohio would ever give us its approval. On top of that, money was very slow. Then the phone rang at our headquarters.

“Is this Jene Galvin?”

“Yes, it is,” I replied hesitantly.

“This is Don Waldrip.”

“Who?” I figured it was my brother, Jerry, pranking me.

“Don Waldrip. The superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools.”

I gulped. Having seen him on recent newscasts, I suddenly registered the Texas drawl of the newly appointed, and famously liberal, boss of the schools.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Uh, we’re doing the New Morning School.”

“I know. But why are you doing it out there? Why isn’t it in the school district?”

“Well, your predecessor told us it was way out and he wasn’t interested.”

“Well, I’m interested,” he said. “We need to talk about bringing you into the district.”

The call jarred staff, students, and parents. The feelings ran in two disparate directions: either we were being liberated from the pressures of raising money and chasing state approval or we were about to be co-opted.

We had town meetings and negotiations, culminating in a wonderfully political all-school gathering where the fruits of our critical thinking and oratory lessons were put on full display. Students and staff made impassioned arguments about the pros and cons of joining with CPS. Then there was a vote. The majority determined that most of us would take the New Morning concept intact down the street to Hughes High School.

There, under the name City-Wide Learning Community, it would become part of the revolutionary magnet school concept that Waldrip was introducing. Meanwhile, one staff member would lead the remaining students, keeping New Morning alive, independent, and out of the greedy clutches of The Man. 

New Morning School continued for two more years until fund-raising challenges and competition with the tuition-free CPS version were too great. City-Wide lasted until 1989 when it morphed into the High School for the Communication Professions (still within Hughes), which employed a similar pedagogy of experiential projects. That lived on until 2009, when Hughes became a STEM school focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. I led the City-Wide Learning Community, then the Communication Professions high school, until retiring from Cincinnati Public Schools in 1998. From the time we created  New Morning School until the day I left secondary education, I carried my belief that learning is organic, student-centered, and never meant to be restricted to a particular building.

Today America still struggles with what kind of education works best for teenagers—a question on the long list of contentious topics that includes unionization, the Common Core, standardized testing, and teacher compensation. But one thing is clear to me. Starting a school in Cincinnati in the early 1970s was harder than breaking into a bank vault, yet today a charter school can be opened within months and remain operational even with dismal results. Conservatives who stiff-armed us in 1971 welcome experimentation today; I suspect that some even hope these “schools of choice” will kill public schools as we know them.

Should a New Morning School be part of this let’s-try-anything climate? Well, if you want to increase the country’s paltry voter turn out, you might want to teach kids participatory democracy by involving them in their school’s daily decisions. If you want people to walk into entry-level jobs and be flexible teammates, able to think creatively and see the big picture, you might want to use interdisciplinary experiential projects that take place in real-world settings. If you want kids to be happy and trust adults, you might want to staff schools with teachers who listen to them and respect them. So, yeah, New Morning still sounds relevant to me.

Am I ready to go around one more time at age 70? Maybe. If this concept inspires some of you young, innovative educators—and a pack of rogue kids—call me and I’ll pass on all the knowledge I’ve accumulated. I know a lot more today than in 1970. But I hope you don’t mind if I let you do most of the work.

Originally published in the January 2014 issue.